Forget Brainstorming

Article excerpt

Byline: Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

What you think you know about fostering creativity is wrong. A look at what really works.

Brainstorming in a group became popular in 1953 with the publication of a business book, Applied Imagination. But it's been proven not to work since 1958, when Yale researchers found that the technique actually reduced a team's creative output: the same number of people generate more and better ideas separately than together. In fact, according to University of Oklahoma professor Michael Mumford, half of the commonly used techniques intended to spur creativity don't work, or even have a negative impact. As for most commercially available creativity training, Mumford doesn't mince words: it's "garbage." Whether for adults or kids, the worst of these programs focus solely on imagination exercises, expression of feelings, or imagery. They pander to an easy, unchallenging notion that all you have to do is let your natural creativity out of its shell. However, there are some techniques that do boost the creative process:

Don't tell someone to 'be creative.'

Such an instruction may just cause people to freeze up. However, according to the University of Georgia's Mark Runco, there is a suggestion that works: "Do something only you would come up with--that none of your friends or family would think of." When Runco gives this advice in experiments, he sees the number of creative responses double.

Get moving.

Almost every dimension of cognition improves from 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, and creativity is no exception. The type of exercise doesn't matter, and the boost lasts for at least two hours afterward. However, there's a catch: this is the case only for the physically fit. For those who rarely exercise, the fatigue from aerobic activity counteracts the short-term benefits.

Take a break.

Those who study multi-tasking report that you can't work on two projects simultaneously, but the dynamic is different when you have more than one creative project to complete. In that situation, more projects get completed on time when you allow yourself to switch between them if solutions don't come immediately. This corroborates surveys showing that professors who set papers aside to incubate ultimately publish more papers. …